Curriculum, Leadership, Opinion, Promising Practices, School Community

Isolating public education from the shifting winds of politics

The Education Reform Movement

Over the past few weeks, I have argued that the publicly funded schools in Canada and the U.S. are not doing well in terms of educating youth for citizenship in a democracy. The nub of my argument is that the graduates of our public schools, with outstanding exceptions, fall short of parental hopes and expectations – specifically in their too-frequent lack of readiness to take on the responsibilities and accountability of adulthood.

A reliable measure of that shortfall is the explosive growth of private and home schooling over the past generation. There are now about 3,000 private schools in Canada and as many as 80,000 kids or more being home schooled. The consequent loss to the public schools of some of their most promising students raises the spectre of a public system, in the not too distant future, beggared of quality staff and resources. Already in some big cities in the U.S., the public schools are populated mainly by underprivileged youngsters under the eye of teachers, many of whom hate their work. A doleful picture.

There are impressive records of community-based education changing the climate of public schooling in the direction of civic mindedness and away from mere careerist ‘self-centredness’. On the dark side of the ledger is the history of political reaction against progressivism in public education dating back to the 1980s. The reactionary forces have easily carried the day – more prescriptive curriculum, standardized tests, penalties for under-performing schools, merit pay for teachers, austerity in funding, enthroning of accountability for school boards and schools. As the saying goes, the natives are restless. Proposed major changes include isolation of public education from the shifting winds of politics, greater autonomy for school boards as education agents, official encouragement of professional status for teachers, involvement of community bodies both private and public in the education process.

My preference leans to the last one of the list, which, in turn, depends heavily on all of the above for realization.  This will be hard sell. A good place to start without upsetting too many apple carts would be the engagement of service agencies and private entrepreneurs in the education process — in limited ways but with potential for major impact on the maturation process of teenagers. I shall return to this next time.  

Meet the Expert(s)

Peter H. Hennessy

Born in 1927, Peter Hennessy walked to a red brick schoolhouse where the teacher taught all the subjects to all the grades at the same time. After sailing through the eight elementary grades in four years and completing high school, he studied history/political economy at Queens University and graduated with honours in 1948.

Based on these early life experiences in the Great Depression, underlined by the horrors of WWII, set him on a mission to bring more fairness and equity into all aspects of society. From 1949 to 1968, he was a high school teacher and administrator, followed by 16 years as a professor of education at Queen’s. Officially retired since 1984, Peter has dabbled in sheep farming, writing, and prison reform. He has written six books, a slew of newspaper columns and journal articles.

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